Russia’s intervention in Syria is a desperate gamble

Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP)

Fr Jacques Mourad has been released by his captors, which is really good news, for Fr Jacques in particular, but for all his friends, and all who wish him well.

Given that Fr Jacques was held by ISIS, his release seems very fortunate indeed. Others have not been so lucky, as we know. Meanwhile, several other clergy still languish in captivity. They should not be forgotten. This whole situation is reminiscent of the Lebanese Civil War, when many hapless bystanders were kidnapped and held for years. For the various warring parties in Lebanon, as today in Syria, kidnap victims were bankable assets, useful pawns in future negotiations. Goodness knows what persuaded ISIS to release Fr Jacques. We are not being told, and perhaps it is best that way.

Meanwhile, the Syrian war continues to show other parallels with the Lebanese conflict. I have been to Lebanon twice, once as a child, before the war, and once as an adult, after the war, when the country was still being rebuilt. As it was explained to me by a wise Lebanese, the war was not a civil war, it was rather a war that the Americans, Israelis, Syrians and Iranians, along with others, decided to fight in Lebanon, rather than in their own territories, what is often called a proxy war. From the start, people in Syria itself have told me that this was never a rebellion against the regime, but rather a war fought by Saudi and Qatari backed “terrorists”. This of course is the line taken by the Syrian government, but even so, it is undoubtedly true that many of the fighters are foreign, and with the open entry of Russia into the conflict, the Syrian war is in fact a proxy war between Russia and its ally Iran, and their Arab rivals.

What is really astonishing, and marks something new, is not Russia’s involvement, for they have consistently backed Assad, but the open nature of its involvement. Why has Russia now put it cards on the table? Even more astonishing is the backing given to Russian involvement by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Western governments have made huge efforts to avoid giving the impression that any military action they take may be construed as a crusade, but the Russian government and the Russian Church seems to have no such qualms. They must surely realise that this strategy, by both state and church, is highly risky. There is no guarantee that Russia can rescue Assad; and it is to be remembered that substantial proportion (perhaps one fifth) of the Russian Federation’s population is culturally Muslim. And why now? After all, isn’t this intervention on the side of Assad four years too late? And, given that the real need of the Syrian government is troops on the ground, why only bombing?

There are answers to all these questions, of course, though they would need a longer analysis than a short article like this one can provide. There is clearly some connection with Ukraine, and foreign adventurism has always been part of Russia’s stock in trade. If Assad were to go under, this would not (until now) have been a disaster for Russia; but clearly Russia wants to project itself as a global power, and the Russian Orthodox Church wants to project itself as a global church; one wants to rival America, the other wants to rival Rome. But that they should both be prepared to take such risks for very questionable outcomes, marks them both out, to my mind, as desperate gamblers who feel they have little to lose.

Meanwhile, Fr Jacques is free. Thank God for that. As for the other captive clerics, Russian intervention may well make their plight worse.